Illegal Distribution of Opioids

Prohibition Incentive

Under prohibition, drugs are manufactured to be smuggled to customers. Smuggling constraints favor potency for its ability to make drugs smaller, stronger, and easier to hide. Prohibition generates an entire underground economy of drug producers and traffickers, empowering organized crime, and gangs across the country, and out. The majority of illicit opioids are imported into the United States.


The opium trade involves 3.3 million of Afghanistan’s 23 million population, according to the UNODC.

The value of the illegal opiate economy exceeded by far, the value of Afghanistan’s legal exports of goods and services during 2016.Record-high production led to a rapid expansion of the illegal economy in 2017, worth between $4.1 billion to $6.6 billion in 2017 – or 20 and 32 per cent of gross domestic product. Approximately one quarter of profit is earned by opium farmers. District officials take a percentage through a tax on crops (known as “ushr”). Insurgents and warlords control the business of producing and distributing the drugs. The rest is made by drug traffickers. The profits from the heroin produced are used to fund the Taliban, as well as terrorist groups like the Islamic State and Al Qaeda.  The Taliban has made a lucrative business from taxing and providing security to producers and smugglers in the region. 60% of the Taliban’s finances come from the narcotics trade.

In the past the opium latex would be dried and smuggled out of Afghanistan as a sticky paste to be refined elsewhere. Now Afghan and western officials were estimating that half, possibly more, of Afghan opium was being internally processed either into morphine or heroin. 

How heroin is refined:

  • Opium is either dried in the sin, or boiled down into a sticky paste in big iron pans
  • Dried opium is mixed with water, lime and ammonium chloride in oill drums heated over fire 
  • The resulting morphine base is then boiled with acetic anhydride and sodium carbonate to create heroin. 

Both heroin and raw opium are smuggled out of Afghanistan along drug routes to supply global demand. To the East, between Pakistan, the Islamic Republic of Iran and Asia, there is evidence of direct shipments by sea, trans-shipment via Middle Eastern ports, air courier via the Middle East, geographically dispersed postal tracking, and trans_shipment via Europe, South_East Asia and Australia.     

90% of the world’s heroin is made from opium grown in Afghanistan. 95% of the market in Europe; 90% of the Canadian market. Perhaps surprisingly, Afghan heroin is reckoned to make up only a tiny fraction of the US market. The US Drug Enforcement Agency claims as little as 1%t of US supply is from Afghanistan. It says virtually all the heroin used in America comes from Mexico and South American countries. 


Mexico is the third largest area of opium poppy cultivation after Afghanistan and Burma. Mexico’s poppy cultivation increased 35% from 2016 to 2017, to an estimated 44,100 hectares (1,089,735 Acres) cultivating 111 metric tons of pure heroin production. In 2017, heroin from Mexico accounted for 91 percent (by weight) of the heroin analyzed through the DEA, virtually all of it being smuggled through legal points of entry The illegal opium economy generated 19 billion pesos ($1 billion dollars) in profit in Mexico in 2017. 

Opium farmers in Mexico were earning around 20,000 pesos ($1,050 dollars) a kilo of raw opium, bring in up to 200,000 pesos ($10,500 dollars) per year. 

Mexican transnational criminal organizations (TCOs) dominate the heroin market in the United States by controlling the supply, trafficking, and wholesale distribution of heroin. They control smuggling routes across the SouthWest Border (SWB), arranging the transport and distribution of heroin throughout the United States. Mexican TCOs work with U.S. gangs to distribute drugs at the regional and local levels.

The SWB remains the primary entry point for heroin into the United States. Most of the heroin seized occurs along the U.S.- Mexico border near San Diego, California. In 2017, approximately 1,073 kilograms of heroin were seized in the San Diego corridor, a 59 percent increase over the total seized in 2016. A small percentage of all heroin seized by CBP along the land border was between Ports of Entry. The majority of drug flow is through Privately Owned Vehicles entering the United States at legal ports of entry, followed by tractor-trailers, where the heroin is co-mingled with legal goods. 

Currently, Customs and Border Protection scans less than 2% of privately owned vehicles and 16% of all commercial vehicles. 

Further analysis of 2016 exhibits indicate that out of 667 heroin exhibits analyzed, 158 (11%) were found to contain fentanyl and/or fentanyl-related substances, which is an increase from 2015 

With the upsurge in fentanyl use, the demand for Mexican heroin has fallen sharply, by an estimated 7 billion pesos ($364 million dollars). This has had an immediate knock-on for opium producers. Farmers are now being paid around 6000 to 8000 pesos ($315 – 415 dollars) per kilo of raw opium. These losses have caused farmers’ profits to disappear, village economies to dry up; and out-migration to increase. 


Fentanyl is a synthetic opioid, fIrst synthesized in Belgian lab in 1960, chemically produced to mirror the functionality of opioids. It is around 100 times stronger than morphine, with some analogues such as carfentanil being 10,000 times stronger.  Fentanyl is legally manufactured in the US, used medically to aid pain in cancer patients. In 2015, there were 6.5 million fentanyl prescriptions dispensed in the U.S. Similarly, in the first nine months of 2016, 4.55 million fentanyl prescriptions were dispensed. Fentanyl pharmaceutical products are currently available in the dosage forms of oral transmucosal lozenges, commonly referred to as the fentanyl “lollipops” (Actiq®), dissolvable tablets (Fentora™), sublingual tablet (Abstral®), sublingual spray (Subsys™), nasal spray (Lazanda®), transdermal patches (Duragesic®), and injectable formulations. 

Illegal fentanyl is diverted via theft, fraudulent prescriptions, and illicit distribution by patients, physicians, and pharmacists. Illicitly manufactured fentanyl is central to the current domestic crisis. 

Until recently, virtually all of illicit fentanyl in the United States was produced in China and distributed via USPS and Express mail carriers. In 2017, the DEA performed 2054 drug seizures from air/mail, 884 at the border, and 37 by sea. Beijing’s decision in May to criminalize all fentanyl-related substances following U.S. pressure led to a decline in the number of Chinese vendors willing to export fentanyl products. The number of drug seizures involving fentanyl sent via mail from China dropped this year. In 2019, Customs and Border Protection has seized more than 2,000 pounds of fentanyl, the majority of it through legal points of entry at the southern border. Mexico has begun importing “precursor” chemicals from China from which to synthesize Fentanyl, filling the void from the absence of Chinese production.  90% of all fentanyl seizures now occur at legal points of entry. 

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